Islam, Gender, and the U.S.

By: Alicia Mundy

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have revealed a huge gap between America and large portions of the Muslim world. But they are also revealing, if not exacerbating, the not-always-dormant ethnic and gender rifts within our own nation. I’m speaking about mainstream pundits who avoid the issue of the murders and oppression of Afghan women by Muslim extremists, while embracing other causes.

One of the first symptoms of this condition appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Wall Street Journal several weeks before Sept. 11. A pro-business cheerleader suggested that America could deal with the Taliban through trade — if only we’d stop harping about women’s issues.

At the time, I thought of contacting the writer to ask how he’d feel if I substituted the phrases “Jewish issues” or “black issues” or “Cuban refugee issues.” Under the Taliban, we’re not talking about extreme examples such as female sailors wanting the right to get pregnant and have day-care facilities on shipboard. We’re talking about being able to walk down the street, to see a car coming at you (which you can’t when your burqa blocks your peripheral vision), to feel the sun on your face, to get a job, to go to a hospital, to go to school — and to do any of these things without being beaten, mutilated by having a limb cut off, or simply killed. Did the writer think we should sweep similar treatment of Jews, blacks, or more politically powerful people under the rug in the name of making a buck?

Around this time, an article appeared in USA Today about Taliban fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan who were beating up women in Kashmir for walking alone with no veil. Since the women were Indian Hindus, living in what is for now a part of India, they should have been allowed this basic freedom. The Indians had to send troops to protect the women. Surprisingly, none of the foreign-affairs pundits who opine on the India-Pakistan war over Kashmir bothered to weigh in on this little matter. Ah, well, a women’s issue, you know.

Come we now to the post-Sept. 11 world. On Oct. 28, The Washington Post‘s “Outlook” section ran a deeply troubling piece by Jonetta Rose Barras about the doubts some in the black community have about “the so-called war on terrorism.” She raised crucial issues about the treatment of blacks in America (but glossed over the murders of 4,500 civilians). Then, she noted, “Because there is a burgeoning Muslim population among African Americans, they want someone to speak up for Palestinians.”

Since I’ve long thought a Palestinian state was the only sane solution, I’ve got no problem with Americans of any color asking for equality for Palestinians. But I’d like to know why the outright mistreatment and enslavement of women by Muslim extremists seems to make American Muslims, black or Arab, suddenly go silent. You’d think their vocal cords had been removed.

So, while some African Americans and American Muslims are calling on the U.S. government to be more openly critical of Israel’s behavior towards Palestinians, both groups are reluctant to criticize any Muslims for brutality toward women that would make Bull Connor proud. To paraphrase George Orwell, apparently some oppressed people are more equal than others.

However, there is one group of people getting a raw deal from Americans right now, and it seems that only black American pundits are standing up for them. The Washington Post‘s William Raspberry and the Chicago Tribune‘s Clarence Page have delivered several disturbing columns on the knee-jerk “racial profiling” of Arabic men by airline pilots, flight attendants, and passengers in recent weeks. Initially, I thought Raspberry’s sympathy was misplaced and asked him about it. He set me straight.

“In the case of these Arab men, or men with Arab-sounding names, we’re the ones behaving badly,” he reminded me. It’s us, the U.S., not people locked in an extremist foreign culture, who are doing the oppressing. “That’s not what we stand for,” he said. America is supposed to be a better place, a land of equality, and we can’t suddenly be arbitrarily singling out certain people because of how they look, no matter how scared we are.

“Terrorists and their sympathizers have been using our own values against us, that’s true,” Raspberry said, “But we have to honor our values while defending ourselves,” or we stand for nothing. America’s behavior is the main reason he’s writing about the humiliation of Arab-American men instead of the mistreatment of Afghan women, he said, not because he considers mistreatment of men more important than that of women.

He’s right that the reason racial profiling of Arabs should concern us is that we are supposed to be the good guys. But that still doesn’t explain why one group’s interests should be subjugated to another’s, when the level of mistreatment is so disproportionate. Amid calls for better treatment of Palestinians and of Arab-American men, surely writers with the depth of humanitarian concern as Raspberry can find a few minutes to address the enslavement of half a nation based solely on its gender.

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